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Why study a foreign language? | An interview with Professor Helene Collins

June 17, 2020

Below is the edited version of a phone interview transcript with Professor Helene Collins. This interview was conducted on March 3rd, 2020. Dr. Collins (HC) is an instructor of the French language at the University of Washington. The interview was conducted by Effie Zheng (EZ). Effie recently graduated from Interlake High School in Bellevue and completed an internship with Professor Sabine Lang. The ‘EZ’ and ‘HC’ below represent their respective initials.


EZ: Professor Collins, first of all, thank you for sitting down and taking the time for this interview. My first question: how long have you been teaching French at the UW?

HC: I began as a graduate student. I was a teaching assistant when I was doing my MA around 1984. And then I became faculty at UW. So I’ve been teaching French since 1984.

EZ: What made you want to specifically become an instructor of French?

HC: I’m a native speaker of French, grew up in France and came here to do an MA in American literature. I always knew I wanted to teach, but it was when I settled in the United States that I became interested in teaching my own mother tongue, so to speak.

EZ: One of the reasons why Professor Lang and I wanted to do this project is because I think at the UW, we’re seeing lower enrollment rates in language courses in general. Have you experienced that in your French classes as well?

HC: We have. Ever since that began, quite a few years ago, our program has been able to fight against it with some efficiency. It’s becoming much more of a challenge now. But French has managed to maintain high enrollment when other languages have not necessarily, and there are many reasons for that. Some of them having to do with the role of French as a global language, and not just the language of one country. French is spoken in other countries that were either former colonies of France, or bona fide, full-fledged independent countries. So French is spoken in a large parts of the world, which means that it keeps the interest or the attention of people who might not be interested in it otherwise. If you think about Africa, for instance, if you go down the West coast, you have a big swath of Africa where French is spoken actively every day. Whether it be the official language of countries that were former colonies or whether it be the language of communication between people who speak one of the many African languages present in these areas. And so there is a life to French that is real in that part of Africa.

EZ: In regards to language learning in general, do you see any long term benefits versus short term benefits of language learning as a college student?

HC: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in the pure intellectual virtue of learning a second language just as a mental exercise and as a cultural experience. It should be part of a liberal arts education. I understand that the very notion of a liberal arts education is threatened, or in question, in many ways. But it doesn’t take away from the benefits of learning a second language or a third, as part of the well-rounded education. And I would add that amongst the students who take French at the UW, we have many who are in the STEM fields. These students are interested in enlarging the scope of their education. So there’s the raw intellectual benefits. There’s the cultural exposure benefit, which can complement a liberal arts education. But there is also the interest of students in the fields of science for foreign languages. I wouldn’t call it a distraction, but rather a perk, a benefit, a luxury, something they enjoy. It’s worth their energy and their time. Many students have an extremely tough schedule, but they find room for French.

EZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned the STEM students. Do you think there is perhaps a ‘necessary balance’ that language learning provides in the academic experience?

HC: Absolutely. I think it provides a different intellectual and real life experience. And in a way, it’s sort of refreshment. It can even have therapeutic function in terms of their college experience.

EZ: To what degree does your department reach out and cooperate with high school students in the local region?

HC: It does. We have a special program, which is over several departments. It’s called ‘UW in the High Schools.’ High school students throughout the state can take UW credit. Their last year of language instruction is basically the equivalent of the third quarter of our first year French 103. We form ties with high schools and with French teachers in the state. It’s been a very successful program. We have 17 or 18 schools that we are in close contact with to whom we send exams and resources. They use the same textbook that we use in the 100 level here.

EZ: Could you address some of the common fears surrounding language learning? For example, the concern that it may be too late to start as an adult.

HC: It’s true that children learn languages more rapidly. But thinking of language at the college level can be an extremely gratifying experience. And it’s not hard. College students would be surprised by how fast they become immersed and grow progressively more proficient in the language. I’m teaching French 201 right now. I’ve had students who began French with me in 101 last year, and they have developed tremendously. An important aspect is recognizing that learning a language will make them grow in a way that can be playful and stimulating at the same time. And it’s a great way to begin their upper level education, their college education. They won’t regret it.

EZ: Could you share some fun highlights from your own French classes? Any interesting or unique activities students can look forward to?

HC: Our French classes follow the ‘task-based’ method. We emphasize immersion in the language right away. Even in French 101, we don’t use any English starting from day one. And students do very well, though it takes them just a little while to get used to it. One example of an activity that is ‘task-based’ is keeping a class journal, or a class periodical that is published online. All students in the class contribute articles and read what others have written. That’s something real, something tangible. At the intermediate and advanced levels, each student has a capstone project for the end of the quarter. It’s an independent project. They choose a topic related to the French language or an aspect of French culture. The projects are presented at the end of the quarter at a fair. It’s not unlike the science fair that students do in high school. The project allows them to pursue a particular interest that they have and to become knowledgeable about the topic. This event at the end of the quarter is always quite spectacular. It is fruitful and stimulating for the people who present their projects, and also for the public who visits the fair.